Introducing 5G into the Operating Theater

Lights in an operating theater
On April 21, 2022, in partnership with an industry consortium, Rennes University Hospital conducted an experiment using a private 5G network in the operating theater. The first of its kind, this experiment was carried out as part of the European 5G-TOURS project, which aims to develop 5G use cases across sectors as diverse as healthcare, mobility and tourism. It opens up endless opportunities for healthcare professionals and patients.

The experiment is a first in France. It involved simulating a cardiovascular procedure carried out by a cardiologist and followed live by his colleague in Athens. By combining 5G connectivity and innovative applications, ultrasound and X-ray images were superimposed and retransmitted using an augmented reality application and a private 5G network. The transmission was carried out over the 26 GHz frequency band, which is still seldom used in Europe but is used fairly widely in Asia and North America.

The experiment has clearly shown that a 5G network can fully support the throughput and latency required to provide high quality medical images.

The experiment aimed to achieve two technical feats. The first challenge was to perfectly sync up the images, in both time and space, as this greatly improves the conditions for the procedure (the images are usually retransmitted on separate screens). The second was ensuring the performance of available 5G wireless network infrastructure, which needed to offer the very high speeds and very low latency required for augmented reality.

The Challenges Involved in Improving Conditions for Hospital Procedures

According to Nelly Besnard, Head of Partnerships and Innovation at Rennes University Hospital and Coordinator of the 5G-TOURS project for the hospital, the results of this experiment are promising: “Operating theaters are using image processing technologies more and more often for less invasive procedures. But these increasingly high-performance and often data-intensive solutions are complicated to set up without a wired network. The experiment has clearly shown that a 5G network can fully support the throughput and latency required to provide high quality images.”

Another significant challenge is streamlining or even removing telecommunication cables in the operating theater, with clear benefits for the medical team and for patients. This is because these cables limit how freely practitioners can move around and must be included in disinfection protocols. 5G mobile connectivity supports flexible equipment usage, ensures automatic connection from any operating theater and improves comfort and efficiency during procedures.

A Proven Partnership

Rennes University Hospital, AMA, b<>com, Orange, Nokia and Philips have been working on conducting 5G-TOURS experiments for many months now. In September 2021, they conducted a remote specialist consultation from a connected ambulance.

  • The hospital team and Orange defined use cases and coordinated the successful implementation of the project.
  • AMA developed the XpertEye assisted reality application.
  • b<>com contributed its 5G Dome private core network solution and augmented reality application (image fusion).
  • Nokia set up the 5G cellular network on the 26 GHz millimeter wave frequency band.
  • Philips coordinated the “connected ambulance” experiment.

Non-Negotiable Parameters

“This progress is crucial,” explains Besnard. “But it should not come at the expense of data security or the health of patients and medical teams. That is why we defined non-negotiable parameters: uninterrupted connectivity, enhanced cybersecurity and complete safety for patients and healthcare professionals.”

Sofiane Imadali, Research Engineer at Orange and Project Manager for 5G-TOURS on connected healthcare topics, confirms that the experiment was conclusive: “From a cybersecurity point of view, a 5G private mobile network is much more secure than a traditional Wi-Fi network. A team at the National Frequency Agency measured the movement of the waves. The results consistently showed an emission rate in W/m2 that was 400 times lower than the limit set by regulations.”

What Are the Future Applications?

There is only one step between experimentation and application. This first step is training young surgeons by using a live or pre-recorded procedure in a university lecture theater. The next step is remote support for complex cases, or to remotely support emergency or non-specialist surgeons so that they can provide a quick and optimal diagnosis as well as making patient care easier.

But we won’t be seeing these real life applications any time soon. It is likely to take three to five years to industrialize a reliable and efficient solution, and further reduce the necessary hardware and wiring. This includes integrating 5G modems into medical devices in the form of a chipset.

In the meantime, another experiment has already been planned: opening up a temporary intensive care unit, which will use monitoring devices and a turnkey 5G network to become operational in less than 48 hours. This new project, rolled out as part of the France Relance plan, brings together the same partners and the initial experiments are expected to start within a year.

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